Poetry Friday: 1942, part 3

I finish now the series on T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets which was begun in May; last week, I mused on the first four sections of the final quartet, “Little Gidding“, and today I’m back, as promised, to wrap up with one of the stretches of poetry I like best of the stuff I’ve read.  I’m going to share two big excerpts from this last section, and talk a little about why I love them, and why I think they successfully conclude the project Eliot has been working on, at this point, for years.  Again, more than anything else, I hope my posts are nudging you to pick up the Four Quartets somewhere and read them yourself.  There’s a lot there, and I don’t imagine that my interpretations are the only ones, or the best ones, necessarily.  Here’s one excerpt from “Little Gidding” that has always moved me:

“Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”

The meditations on time that Eliot began in “Burnt Norton” were steps out into a larger world—he opens with the idea that “time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future“, and the dizzying logic of that first section of Norton unfolds the possibilities inherent in time.  Time seems to burst outwards and allows us to move in all directions.  But here in Little Gidding, Eliot is drawing things back together.  I love the clarity of his focus on words here—on the idea that all of the things we write and say are limits somehow.  They mark our time, carving it up into the space before something is said and the space after it, and ultimately words and actions and everything we do will take us to mortality, which Eliot seems to envision as a great martydom, the saint beheaded or set aflame, the prophet cast into the sea and the forgotten sage whose monument crumbles to dust.  But Eliot’s phrasing avoids, for me, any sense of sorrow or loss here: he confronts death as a great tidal motion much like time, and somehow we go out and come back with the dead in a sojourn that seems to be going somewhere.  I can feel its importance between the lines.  Eliot wants us to cast loose from our temporary physical existence and see the world in a new way—through the lens that acknowledges that the frail petals of a single summer and the strong boughs that have seen a hundred summers are somehow the same.  Time is something mysterious here, malleable and able to be commanded.

I confess, I don’t know what it means that a history-less people is not redeemed from time, no more than I know what it means that history is “a pattern of timeless moments”.  But I can feel the truth in Eliot’s fading winter twilight (what a perfect and gorgeous image for this last benediction of the quartets).  England means something to him more than England the physical place or the government or society.  It was the home he looked for and found, it was a road that led him back into a past he found he could encounter, and here in 1942 it is a bulwark against dark forces and a hope that has been sustained through the lonely months when the storms of Europe raged.  “History is now and England” is a secret language that Eliot alone knew how to speak, but it resonates with me, because I think Eliot is trying to show us the great connectedness of the particulars of our lives, our hopes, our experiences, and the world of human experience.  As he said in the final section of the second quartet, “East Coker“, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after, / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only“.  He is trying to sustain both the delight of our particular lives and our selfhood and the wonder of the pulse of life that unites us all somehow, across time and space and every other kind of boundary.  And then he kicks it into another gear entirely:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

This is why the Four Quartets, taken as a whole, deserves a place among the greatest of the explorer’s poems, for me: as great as Homer’s Odyssey and all those poets inspired by it, Tennyson with his “Ulysses” and Cavafy with his “Ithaca” and W. H. Auden with his zany “Atlantis”.  The journey we began in “Burnt Norton” by following the echoes through the door we did not open into “our first world” is ended here in that unexpected outcome—the echoes have led us around the great circle and we are back at the door again, but now we see it and understand what the journey was for.  Our travels have built in us an ability to understand that the one thing we knew all along is the one thing we will have to learn anew.  We started, as I said, by going through the door we did not open; we end by returning to the gate we do not know and have not remembered.  This experience is core to much of our art—when I think of the works I like best, “homecoming” is an element in many of them, especially the unlooked-for arrival, the happy shock of rediscovery.  For me, all these images begin to work together across the poems—the voice of the hidden waterfall at the source of that longest river (Time?) seems to me to be the echo that called to me through the unopened door at the beginning of these poems, and even the murmur of the children in the apple tree whose voices can barely be heard “between two waves of the sea” reminds me (maybe spuriously, but it does) of the human voices that Eliot’s anti-hero, Prufrock, thinks will wake him to drowning while he swims with the mermaids at the end of his “Love Song”, Eliot’s first great work.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is the source of, among other things, “all manner of thing shall be well”—her theology of optimism and love (and her embrace of the femininity in God) was about eight centuries ahead of her time, unfortunately for her. (Photo credit: Flickr user “rocketjohn”)

What we capture in this last sweep of our eyes and ears, beyond the waterfall and the voices of the children and the long river running to the sea, is I think almost perfect as poetry—the sense of immediacy and eternity co-existing, the complete simplicity we can gain only by submitting all things to its purpose, the gentle cry of Julian of Norwich that there is no thing that can by stumbling fail to reach the joy of its ultimate purpose.  The symbolism of the fire and rose, and the infolding Pentecostal flames into a crowned knot, is I think both easily explored (there are plenty of critical commentaries, at least) and deeply personal to Eliot.  To me it resonates backwards into the rest of “Little Gidding”—the destructive fire that made ashes of the air and swallowed the town in the poem’s second section is also (in the fourth section) the divine fire that descends from Heaven on Eliot and the “intolerable shirt of flame” that Love imposes on us (in an echo of the myth of the death of Hercules) which we cannot remove, and somehow in the end it joins with the rose in a way that does not consume it but fulfills it.  There’s an immense peace to this finale that I’ve loved since the first time I read it, I think in part because Eliot makes us so sure that there is a happy ending to this world we inhabit, and in part because he strikes the perfect level of ambiguity and obscurity for me with his poetry.  His word are at once both easy for me to identify with and hard for me to explain or interpret—in fact, the images that mean most to me are often the ones I can do the least to comment upon.

I’ll take on something less demanding next week—something maybe easier to take in all at once, and certainly something that requires less quotation and allusion from me.  I know that a lot of people aren’t as taken with Eliot as I am, and especially that Eliot’s late career move into this kind of symbolism and metaphysical musing is as unpopular with some folk who like his early work as it is welcome to me (who finds it hard to enjoy his early stuff as much as I’d like to).  I’m glad some of you have some along on this journey, though, and hope you’ve gotten something out of it.  If anybody read one or more of the quartets and has anything to say about it, I hope you’ll share in the comments: thanks!

Poetry Friday: Atlantis

Many of my former students know my obsession with the heroes of Greek myth—and some few of you will remember also a favorite poem of mine that connects to one of those heroes, Odysseus.  It’s a poem by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, entitled “Ithaca”.  I made much of Ithaca as an idea once in some public remarks, inspired at least a little bit by Cavafy, who talks about the journey to Ithaca…what we find along the way, and how we come in the end to realize that Ithaca’s gift to the people who journey there is the journey itself.  It’s a lovely poem, and one I may post someday, but tonight I’m more interested in a parody/homage/re-envisioning of Cavafy’s poem—a poem by Wystan Hugh Auden, one of my very favorite poets, entitled “Atlantis”.  I’ll say more about why I picked it (and why I strung together those three non-equivalent nouns with slashes) once you’ve read it:

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty scholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong;
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
‘This is Atlantis, dearie,’
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
The terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Tundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and snow, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, dear friend, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri.
Protect and serve you always:
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, friend, upon you
The light of His countenance.

I know it’s long, but I’ve always wondered about this poem. When I first read it, I had read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” not long before, and the opening lines of “Atlantis” (and, honestly, multiple moments in later stanzas) are so obviously modeled on “Ithaca” that I immediately took it for a parody—a joke on Cavafy, mocking the idea of the journey to a nearly unreachable island, and the notion of being satisfied if the destination didn’t live up to expectations.

But as I return to “Atlantis”, year after year, I’m increasingly moved by it. I suspect that it’s not a parody at all, or else that Auden, who began in a parody, gradually found his own ground to stand on and his own ideas to explore. Some of you may know “Ithaca” and I’m hoping you can give your own impression. More importantly, most of you probably won’t have ever read Cavafy’s poem. You can hunt it down via Google, of course, but I’m curious—I’d expect that, if this poem is only a parody, it won’t have done much for you. All the “winks” in the poem will just feel like non sequiturs to you (I’d surmise). But, conversely, if there’s something real here in “Atlantis”, I’d expect you’d have an easier time finding it, being undistracted by any similarities the poem bears to some verse you haven’t read. I would love to get reactions to this poem from a few of you passers-by.

In the meantime, I don’t want to poison the well too much with my own opinions (which I hope to expand on in comments conversations with you), but I will say that I think “Ithaca” was a poem about what a person can find in the world, and that what makes “Atlantis” different is that Auden was interested in what a person can find inside themselves. “Atlantis”, then, becomes not the external goal that creates the journey, but the internal voice that calls us onto the road. But maybe I’m wrong, and in any case this is by no means the sum total of my thoughts. Enjoy your weekend, and read some more poetry if you can.